Didion's 'Last Thing' -- '1984' without prophecy

September 08, 1996|By Alane Salierno Mason | Alane Salierno Mason,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"The Last Thing He Wanted: A Novel," by Joan Didion. Knopf. 240 pages. $23.

To overgeneralize, contemporary American fiction tends to be apolitical; there seem to be few literary novelists, and even fewer women among them, who will confidently tackle conflicts more global than domestic. So it is a good thing to have a Joan Didion, one of America's most acclaimed essayists and novelists, whose novels bring an investigative reporter's eye and sensibility to fiction about the wider world.

"The Last Thing He Wanted," her first novel in 12 years, is set in the year of Orwell's "1984," but from the perspective of hindsight rather than prophecy.

"You may recall the rhetoric of the time in question," Didion's narrator suggests, echoing Orwell's Newspeak; that is, "If you remember 1984, which I notice fewer and fewer of us care to do."

It is a reporter's tale of another reporter gone AWOL: from the presidential campaign trail, in the middle of covering the 1984 primaries; from a marriage to an oil magnate whose routine investments are in the hundreds of millions; from civilized society when she decides to take the place of her convalescent father - a small-time international arms dealer - in delivering an airlift of anti-tank and anti-personnel mines to the Nicaraguan contras. (She will later be framed as an agent of the Sandinistas, a story that will duly be reported by the Associated Press).

Ultimately, on a lesser Caribbean island, this protagonist, Elena McMahon, will encounter Treat Morrison, one of those higher-ups in the State Department with a hand in every pie; their meeting triggers something which, in State Department speak, "ought not to have happened."

Of the shrewd and inarguable artistry of Didion's work, the worst that can be said is that some of her techniques seem overly practiced gestures - the use of acronyms and opaque references to the Rand Corp. to suggest the creepiness of bureaucracy; echoing lines to remind us of the redounding significance of stray comments; the indirection that hints at events taking place just beyond the edge of our perception; too easy sketches of minor characters (the arms dealer, naturally, is also a bigot; a gay character, of course, has a collection of Broadway show tunes).

But Didion knows how to keep you hooked on her two main characters, Elena McMahon and Treat Morrison, in their fascinating and tender remoteness, and even on her elusive narrator, who coolly offers up her clues like slender cigarettes to a companion's lighter: "The persona of 'the writer' does not attract me."

A woman leaps from reporting on the world to living in it, and the consequences are political. Small-time thugs and bureaucrats and semi-catatonic people make up the "subtext" of history, while offstage, real power pulls the puppet strings.

Didion's novel seems satisfied to point these things out, but such predictable commentary on the events of an already vanished bi-polar Cold War world has a tinny ring.

As a tense and skillful study in the atmospheric workings of conspiracy, the book is brainy and stylish entertainment. But as political fiction? The savvy skepticism engendered by hindsight is no match for the power of Orwell's prophecy. In Treat Morrison's incantatory words: "I mean you could add it up but where does it get you.?"

Alane Salierno Mason is an editor at W.W. Norton and a contributor to Commonweal.

Pub Date: 9/08/96

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